The Dan Schneider Interview 31: Peniel Joseph  (first posted 9/11/11)


DS: This DSI is with historian Dr. Peniel Joseph. Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed. He has edited the book The Black Power Movement: Rethinking The Civil Rights And Black Power Era and written Waiting ’Til The Midnight Hour: A Narrative History Of Black Power In America. He has also been a regular commentator on things historic on assorted PBS programs, especially playing a prominent role commenting on the 2008 Presidential election. I want to delve into his opinions on a plenum of subjects- from not just the historic, but the political and philosophic. For those readers to whom your book and your name are unfamiliar, could you please give a précis on who Peniel Joseph is: what you do, what your aims in your career are, major achievements, and your general philosophy, etc.?

PJ: Wow, that is a really comprehensive question. I am a native New Yorker, born in the city, lived for a couple of years in Brooklyn and was raised in Jamaica, Queens by a single mother, Germaine Joseph, a Haitian immigrant who was a hospital worker, union member (1199), and my first  and best history teacher/professor. I grew up in a household where politics and history and reading mattered. Coming of age in New York City during the 1980s was an amazing experience both culturally and politically. There was a resurgence in an appreciation for black history due in part to the explosive rise of Hip Hop and the election of the city’s first black mayor, David N. Dinkins. Race relations in the city remained fraught with incidents such as Howard Beach, where a young black man was chased by whites and killed, sparking outrage and political unity at the grassroots level that would be seen in movies such as Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing” in 1989 and music by Public Enemy. So my personal experience dovetailed into the era’s unfolding political drama and I became determined to be a historian, writer, teacher, activist, and scholar. Watching the documentary series “Eyes on The Prize” during the 1980s proved to be a watershed experience and introduced me to the study of figures such as Malcolm X, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Stokely Carmichael, and Martin Luther King Jr. In terms of a general philosophy, studying the lives of such individuals made me believe in the best that American democracy had to offer. The lives of black women and men who literally bled for American democracy and citizenship proved to be an overwhelming experience for me, one that still touches me deeply to my core.

DS: People who see your photo will find something of a logical and emotional disconnect between their assumptions of what a historian looks like and what you are. When people think of historians, they think of old white folk, especially men, like a David McCullough. Yet, aside from not being white, you look like you could still be an undergraduate yourself. Does your visage ever throw people off, such as if you are in some sort of debate, and your opponents may underestimate you because of perceived callowness? Who were some historians you read that excited you with their work, styles, ideas?

PJ: Well I think that my youthful appearance does at times throw people off. As does my energy and enthusiasm for the study of history and politics and social movements in general. At the same time it provides an entrée in reaching young people who may be put off by the study of history.  The historians who excited me vary, ranging from W.E.B. Dubois’ towering works on race, democracy, and the color line during the twentieth century to C.L.R. James’ The Black Jacobins, Carter Woodson’s, The Mis-Education of the Negro, to Lerone Bennett Jr., Manning Marable, Nell Painter, David Levering Lewis, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, and Darlene Clark Hine. The work of Robin D.G. Kelley proved to be indispensible. Kelley’s work on black radicalism, the labor movement, civil rights, and Hip Hop opened up new intellectual doors. The accessible writing style of  Marable, Kelley, Taylor Branch, David Garrow, Vincent Harding, and Clayborne Carson  has also been very influential.

DS: I mentioned the titles of two of your books, and your job title is Professor of History at Tufts University. Most people, black, white, or other, will assume that you are only concerned with the history of black people, to the exclusion of others. In white America, this often leads many white people to assume that you may be practicing Politically Correct or Multicultural studies to the exclusion of ‘Dead White Men,’ in the least, and in the worst, perhaps practicing the pseudo-history and pseudo-science nonsense propounded by Nation Of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad. What exactly is it that you study and teach? And, how does it relate to the overall larger narrative of human history- beyond the racial boundaries of America? Are you interested in paleontology’s role in history? Do you find things in your specific area of expertise that has analogues to, say, the eastward expansion of Polynesians across the Pacific and into South America, the ancient kingdoms of Indochina, the implications of Kennewick Man on the role of Native American ancestry in the New World, or the displacement of Neandertals by modern European forebears?

PJ: Broadly speaking I study the role of race in shaping the evolution of American democracy both domestically and internationally. That is to say African American history has indelibly shaped the history of liberalism, the Constitution, democracy, race relations, World Wars, the Cold War, and postwar history. It relates to a wider narrative of human history in the sense that the black experience remains a portal for a wide variety of racial and ethnic groups fighting for social, political, cultural, and economic equality at the local, national, and global level. In terms of my field of study, I would say what is most analogous to fields of ancient history is the global reverberations of the social movements that I read, write, and research about.

DS: What do you define cultural memory as- national, religious, racial, etc.?

PJ: Well I believe it is, in fact, all of these things. Cultural memory tends to be seen through discrete prisms, whether racial, national, or religious and can vary depending on local geography and historical time and place. The way in which American society views the era of Jim Crow or the Civil War and Reconstruction still varies widely depending on where one looks and who one asks. 

DS: To what extent do factors like path dependence, contingency, causality, and the random effect of small acts on history- aka the Butterfly Effect, have on history?

PJ: I think that these have a considerable impact on history. All of the historical events we study are contingent in the sense that the outcomes as we know them were never pre-determined so its important to pay close attention to small historical factors that loom large in the big history or grand narratives that historical love to write about.

DS: I’ll return to more detailed queries on history later, but before we get too far afield, let me start at the beginning, your beginning, and probe who you are and why readers will find your ideas and career interesting. Are you married? Is your wife a historian, a lawyer, a professor, an artist? And how did you meet?

PJ: I am not married, although my personal partners have tended to be women who find history interesting.

DS: Looking at your c.v., one can divine you were born in the early to mid-1970s. That means you are an early Generation Xer, so to speak. You were born after the Civil Rights Movement, but where were you born, and to what extent did a black kid of your generation benefit from the earlier struggles with racism in America? Especially since you were born to immigrants, correct? Was your family upwardly mobile? Did you grow up in a relatively integrated area?

PJ: I like to call my generation “Black Power Babies,” meaning we were born between 1966-1975 a period that I refer to in my own scholarship as the Black Power Movement’s “classical era.” We benefited tremendously from earlier struggles for civil rights and Black Power and in fact my generations was very self-consciously attempting to recreate aspects of the 1960s era political activism in our own lives. A prime example is the campus radicalism of my youth in the late 1980s and early 1990s when students rallied against apartheid in South Africa. The Hip Hop groups of what is now popularly known as a golden era in Hip Hop tended toward black consciousness, especially on the East Coast. Groups such as Public Enemy, Poor Righteous Teachers, X-Clan, Jungle Brothers, A Tribe Called Quest, Brand Nubian, Intelligent Hoodlum, and others explicitly and implicitly looked to the Black Power era for a sense of political direction and cultural identification. My family was working-class as was the neighborhood that I lived in, which was also probably 99 per cent black.

DS: I also grew up in Queens, in the western nabes of Ridgewood and Glendale, whereas you grew up in Queens Village, to the east. I lived in Ridgewood till the age of 9, but often my friends and I played over in Bushwick, across the Brooklyn border, with black kids. That nabe was seen in Spike Lee’s film Do The Right Thing. There were many burnt out buildings, heroin galleries, etc. (in the late 1960s and early 1970s), and I got a good education in juvenile and low level criminal activity. The thing folks outside of New York don’t understand is that New York was integrated but segregated, in that there would nabes where blacks, Poles, Italians, Irish, Puerto Ricans, etc. lived, and they would be right next to each other, with invisible boundary lines, mostly enforced by real estate redlining and natal prejudices. What was Queens Village like, racially and in terms of crime? 

PJ: Racially Queen was very segregated. My area was overwhelmingly black. Whites lived in places like Fresh Meadows, Flushing, and Nassau and Suffolk Counties. In terms of crime both the perpetrators and victims tended to be black.

DS: While there were ‘racial incidents’ (usually whites attacking blacks that ventured into ‘wrong areas’), most bigots I knew were not hood wearing White Supremacists, merely people who were ‘taught wrongly,’ and would not have wanted their child marrying a black person. As example, I recently found out about the death of a supermarket grocery manager I used to work for, a quarter century ago. He was a good, honest, hard working blue collar guy who treated all employees well and fairly (regardless of ethnicity), and all his workers would bust their ass for him. Yet, he was a bigot (of the latter kind). One Christmas Eve, when we both worked late, I recall him wiping show off his car in the store parking lot and wishing me a Merry Christmas. We talked a bit, and he told me, ‘Y’know, Danny, guys like you and me are nothin’ but white niggers to the fuckers who run this company. We get no respect. They think we’re niggers.’ Now, many PC blacks I know (especially in the arts) would declare that unrepentantly a racist comment, and technically it is. But, they would also fail to see that there was an empathy involved, too. To what degree do you feel racial attitudes of the last few decades have changed? Millions of whites voted for Obama, yet some blacks always have a ‘guilty till proven innocent’ attitude towards whites, and will easily condemn someone’s intellectual ignorance (as in the above example, without recognizing the emotional empathy. Do you agree? And what can be done to bridge more of this talking past each other? And not just black and white, but Jew and black, black and Hispanic, black and Asian, etc?

PJ: Well, I do think that there is empathy in that comment made by the white manager. But at the same time I understand why many blacks will look past such nuance and condemn the overall sentiment. Over the past decade or so, especially with the election of President Obama, hardened racial attitudes have softened around the edges. Whites and blacks and other racial groups are much more likely to interact with each other through music and educational and cultural outlets than at any other time in the past. But in terms of where whites and blacks live, play, work, and socialize together segregation remains as American as apple pie. In terms of building bridges, one of the things I wrote in the aftermath of the Henry Louis Gates Jr. arrest and controversy was the need for a national dialogue about race. My new book, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama hopefully contributes to this dialogue by discussing the ways in which black radicals confronted American democracy’s shortcomings while simultaneously contributing to its evolution.

DS: I mentioned ‘racial incidents,’ and most people think ‘white on black.’ Yet, ‘black on white’ crime is usually seen just as ‘crime’. Why is it not seen in a racial context? And, is that in itself, racist, in that the expectation of crime amongst blacks is taken as a given, and not something extraordinary, as in ‘hate crimes’?

PJ: Well, historically white on black crime has been fueled by racial hatred. Lynchings, race riots, and racial pogroms in the United States were so commonplace that people gathered around for certain racial killings as if attending a picnic and sent postcards to friends and relative as souvenirs to remember the occasion. There is simply no black on white parallel of such behavior in America’s history.

DS: Do you believe that racism, in America today, is less about racial supremacism and more just about fear and unease? Or are there other factors at work?

PJ: I believe that racial supremacy still exists when we examine America’s politics, wealth structure, corporate power, and criminal justice system. At the same time there has been unprecedented advancement by blacks into the upper echelons of political and corporate power perhaps best exemplified by President Obama.

DS: Whether one is murdered by a serial killer, a hitman, a spree killer, a pedophile, a mugger, a drug addict looking for cash, or a Klansman wanting to string up a Jew or black man, the dead are still dead, right? So, aren’t ‘hate crimes’ silly? After all, the deed is what is to be punished, not the motive. Your take?

PJ: I would not call them silly since America has a pernicious history of anti-Semitism and racism it still has yet to fully confront. The raison detre for hate crimes legislation is real even if its application is at times imperfect.

DS: Historians often claim that the greatest hate crimes, which become atrocities like genocide, are often inflicted by the most similar groups, rather than polar opposites, like white-black, or European-American Indians. They will cite Serbs and Bosnians, Sunnis and Shia, Irish and English, Japanese and Chinese, etc. Do you think this is so? If not, why not, and does it really matter why one group persecutes another?

PJ: Well I understand the observation, but would say that the various roots of ethnic conflict (religious, economic, racial) often serve to obscure the human cost of history’s tragedies.

DS: You are of Haitian descent. To what degree did tales of the ‘old country’ play into your family life, the way it has in most European descendents?

PJ: My mother was both very traditional and very contemporary. She was a strict disciplinarian in terms of education, curfews, where one could venture off to, and who with. At the same time she had a very profound interest in history and social justice. She is a woman of great integrity and passed that on to me. Haitian history played a significant role in my up-bringing as did Haitian culture. I learned early on about the Haitian Revolution of 1804, the US occupation of the island in the early twentieth century, and the long struggle for a lasting democracy waged by its people.

DS: In this essay you write: ‘Activism, in a variety of forms from joining organizations, standing on picket lines, protesting the Gulf War, apartheid in South Africa, and the quarantine of Haitian refugees in Guantanamo, is a legacy passed on from my mother, a trade-unionist, hospital worker, and member of local 1199 for almost forty years.’ On a tangent, what are your thoughts of the modern labor movement? My dad (born in 1916, died in 1983) was a die hard union man, and I think it’s one of the reasons that, despite not even graduating past 6th grade, he was far more comfortable around minorities, and far more supportive of the Civil Rights Movement than many of his friends, who were Wall Street Long Island Republican sorts. Why has unionism failed? And, do you think that the increasing number of black and minority workers in unions, percentage-wise, over the last few decades, has led to greater white apathy toward labor, and its decline in terms of numbers of workers represented by a union?  

PJ: America has a long and rich history and tradition of labor activism. In many ways however, the relationship between blacks and labor has remained star-crossed. Now this is not to dismiss or ignore the role of black radicals such as Hubert Harrison, Asa Philip Randolph, Paul Robeson, and Bayard Rustin in attempting to craft black-labor alliances. Nor does it discount the role played by Martin Luther King and UAW head Walter Reuther at the March on Washington. Malcolm X stood in solidarity with the service workers of 1199, which was my mom’s union, as did Stokely Carmichael who wore an 1199 hat during the Meredith March Against Fear in the late spring and early summer of 1966.  But racism in labor unions have been the tragic norm, rather than aberration, historically.  During the Black Power era, black workers set up black caucuses inside of existing unions and waged wildcat strikes to demand better working conditions. The most famous instances took place in Detroit, where black auto workers former various Revolutionary Union Movements at local auto plants, including the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) which culminated in the League of Black Revolutionary Workers and Black Workers Congress. A very poignant, but underappreciated cinematic rendering of aspects of black-white race relations within the context of labor organizing, is found in the 1978 film Blue Collar, featuring a brilliantly understated Richard Pryor, a fierce Yaphet Kotto, and the always reliable Harvey Keitel. Another film that touches upon this, albeit in an earlier era, is John Sayles’ 1987 gem, Matewan.


DS: have not seen Blue Collar, but Matewan is one of John Sayles’ best films. You further write:As an undergraduate at Stony Brook University, my double major in European history and Africana Studies was complimented by my involvement in campus activism and journalism as a writer for the campus newspaper, Black World. At Stony Brook issues of social justice came alive through a group of mentors in the Africana Studies department.  After graduating from college and initially wanting to try my hand at free-lance writing, I decided to go to graduate school.  My reasons were practical, political, and intellectual.  Having limited connections to the literati, and wanting to find out more about the world before writing about it, I decided to pursue a Ph.D. in American history. A graduate degree, I thought, would allow me to raise the stakes of my community activism to ivory towers where black faces were few and far between.’ Having studied European and American history, what common human threads do you find between them and African history? European history is generally seen via the prism of the Enlightenment, and American history via Manifest Destiny, whereas African history is seen as tribalism, with a few mentions of some early civilizations: Mali, Ghana, Zulu, etc. Yet, tribalism in Europe was behind the two worst carnages in modern history, the World Wars. Comments?


PJ: I think that both Europe and Africa are two continents that have been profoundly impacted by forced and voluntary diasporas, wars, ethnic conflict, and globalization in its various forms. The common threads between American, African, and European History is a search for citizenship, freedom, and human rights in an age and era where such things were very difficult to come by.


DS: You also write,My graduate school blues were punctuated by participation in community activism in and around the Philadelphia area.  I became intensely involved with issues surrounding police brutality and the death penalty during these years.  This was due in no small part to efforts to keep journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal off of death row.  I was intrigued by Abu-Jamal’s background as a respected journalist and was surprised to learn that he had been a former Black Panther.’ Now, let me state, having suffered at the hands of the corrupt Serpico-era NYPD as a youth, I have no love for cops, and detest the blanket post-9/11 hagiography accorded that profession. However, having been in a teen gang, and having worked at a Mob front carting company as a teen, I am pro-death penalty. I also think that most liberals shoot themselves in the foot with their off-base support of killers like Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu-Jamal. Later we’ll discuss Bill Cosby’s movement against worshipping gangstas and the like, but I find Leftist ‘intellectuals’ who support Peltier or Abu-Jamal to be as daft as those who were pro-Stalin in the 1940s and 1950s. Having looked and read much of these two, it’s clear they were the killers or protecting the killers, and defending them loses credibility for the defenders. In the above linked essay I also name former Weather Underground member Kathleen Soliah in a troika of Leftist Lost Causes, and describe how one person I used to know, reacted to her: ‘Still the Left alibis for this would-be, but incompetent, killer. The cry is- but her cause was JUST! At least to the Liberals who defended her- to the Conservatives she was part of the 1960s anti-American conspiracy to strip the USA of all its decency. Neither side could view the KS case objectively. This sick logic reached its nadir for me when, in 1999, at the time of her arrest, I was regularly performing at the Balls cabaret in downtown Minneapolis. The cabaret was run by local singer Leslie Ball- a very sincere, nice, but naïve & bleeding heart Liberal. Ball, who had for years decried all sorts of injustices & criminals, & who had served on abortion clinic protection lines- against anti-abortion terrorists, now started defending the good Liberal terrorist KS- mouthing the silly & fallacious conspiracy lies. It was sad to see that hypocrisy lay at the root of Ball’s convictions- but that is the way for most humans, especially those who identify with a ‘group’ rather than an ethos.’ So, is your support of Abu-Jamal based upon evidence, or group identity rather than ethics?


PJ: I am against the death penalty on principle. Our criminal justice system retains too many flaws and biases (racial and economic) to allow the state to put a person to death. Also, as a historian who has studied 1960s era criminal cases against activists (such as Black Panther Geronimo Pratt who spent decades in prison for a murder he did not commit) I think that we must be very careful in terms of sifting through evidence in these cases.  So, I think that its dismissive to caricature support for Abu-Jamal not receiving the death sentence as part of some loony left. 


DS: Do you see any connection between the Left’s support of the above named trio and the Right’s support of the anti-abortion and Olympic bomber/killer, Eric Rudolph. I state, from the essay:As with the 3 Lefty heroes, the Right has trotted out all sorts of excuses to justify ER’s crimes, merely because he supports the Right’s ‘right’ causes. Similarly, the Left- who have alibied galore for KS, LP, & MAJ- whereas ER is concerned, finds no pity for a ‘monster’. For both extremes their support comes down to politics, not evidence. Government conspiracies, supposed nobility and justice are spouted, yet neither side can admit that these extremists are merely mirror images of each other.’ Comments.


PJ: I do not subscribe to conspiracy theories from the left or right. As a historian I have studied hundreds of thousands of pages of FBI files that illustrate the way in which the government illegally and unconstitutionally targeted Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, the Nation of Islam, Martin Luther King, and the Black Panthers. At times the FBI and local law enforcement pushed already simmering tensions over the edge into violence and destruction.  So as an American citizen deeply invested in preserving democratic values for dissidents, irrespective of their ideological orientations, I understand the deep suspicion that some have about police and law enforcement officials based on our recent history.

DS: Back to the more personal. What were some of the cultural touchstones in your life, the things, events, or people who graced your existence with those ‘I remember exactly where I was’ moments? When did you gain a fascination for things historic?

PJ: My love of history comes from my mother. One specific cultural touchstone was the release of Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing in the summer of 1989. I was living in NYC and was sixteen years old and remembered reading newspapers and watching news reports that suggested the film would cause racial violence in the city.

DS: What did you want to be when you grew up? Who were your childhood heroes and why? Where did you go to high school, and to what colleges?

PJ: I always wanted to do something that would be connected to reading, writing, and research. My childhood heroes, in addition to my mother, were historical figures such as Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, the Kennedys (both JFK and RFK), Toussaint Louverture. I went to Holy Cross High School in Queens, Stony Brook University, and Temple University.

DS: What sort of child were you- a loner or center of attention? Did you get good grades? Were you a mama’s boy, a nerd, or a rebel?

PJ: My mom kept both me and my brother on the straight and narrow.  I was stubborn and could be hard to handle at times. In school I was very social, but also very outspoken and politically conscious.

DS: Any siblings? What paths in life have they followed?

PJ: I have an older brother, Kerith, who is an emergency medical doctor in Maryland. He is happily married and I have a beautiful nine year old niece. 

DS: Any children? What are their interests?

PJ: I don’t have any children yet. I’m interested in traveling, wine, yoga, bike riding, outdoors activity.

DS: What of your parents? What were their professions? Did they encourage your pursuit of history?

PJ: I was raised by my mother, who was a lab technologist at a hospital in New York. She certainly encouraged my pursuit and love for reading and history. She told me stories about Haitian history and the history of the civil rights movement and would buy me any book that I wanted or found of interest.

DS: What was your youth like, both at home and in terms of socializing with other children?

PJ: Very active in terms of socializing with other children who lived in the neighborhood and who were at the church that we went too.

DS: Let us put aside the specific area of history that you are versed in and return to your childhood reading. Although I write fiction, criticism, and poetry, as a child I read almost nothing in those three fields. Instead, I read history and science books and magazines, maps, dictionaries, almanacs, and encyclopediae. Were you someone plumbing history books? If so, which books and authors grabbed your attention? Why? Did they influence your desire for history at an early age?

PJ: Early on I read C.L.R. James’ The Black Jacobins, which is a classic history of the Haitian Revolution. That book’s narrative really influenced the way that I thought about history.

DS: On my list of most influential books in my life, I would include Alex Haley’s The Autobiography Of Malcolm X (for his life as a teen was similar to mine, save a few decades earlier); Walt Whitman’s Leaves Of Grass (started my love of poetry); Loren Eiseley’s autobiography All The Strange Hours (supernal prose that probes the wonders of the cosmos); Leonard Shlain’s Art And Physics (which helped me understand Modern Art), and the Betty Smith’s novel A Tree Grows In Brooklyn (a great book). What books would you put on such a list as mine above?

PJ: The Black Jacobins; The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois; Cane by Jean Toomer; Native Son by Richard Wright; Black Power by Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton; The Autobiography of Malcolm X; Parting the Waters by Taylor Branch.

DS: What exactly is it about history that rapt you? Was there a single thread or narrative- like the Conquistadors, the Crusades, Napoleon, the World Wars, that made you say, ‘Ah, if I wanna understand people, I gotta learn about __.’?

PJ: Broadly speaking the circumstances that enveloped the nation on the long road from slavery to freedom. More specifically, the civil rights-Black Power era and the way in which the social movements of the 1960s transformed American democracy. 

DS: Do you consider yourself a social or cultural critic, now, having penned works of history? If so, what further aims or obsessions will you pursue in later books? And, if so, what do you see as the relationship between history and criticism? Are there areas of overlap, or, are they, as the late evolutionary scientist Stephen Jay Gould claimed of religion and science, Non-Overlapping Magisteria?

PJ: Well, I do consider myself a historian and cultural critic. Future works, including my current in-progress bio of Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) will plumb the impact that 1960s based icons have had on our conception of citizenship, democracy, race relations, and equality.

DS: What are your views on religion? What links do you see between mythos and religion? Is myth merely expired religion, and religion myth alive? What effect does reliable history have on the shadowy beliefs of myth and religion? Can it clarify, does it extirpate, or does it enhance the status of myth and religion? Do you see religion spawning from the same human wellspring as art?

PJ: Well as a Christian I believe that religion is a wellspring to a variety of important traditions, customs, and practices, including, but not limited to, art.

DS: There’s the old John Ford Western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, that has one of American cinema’s most noted quotations: ‘When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.’ It seems to me that a quote like that has often been taken too literally by lesser historians and journalists. Oftentimes, when reading history books, one comes across apocrypha that is known apocrypha, debunked elsewhere, yet re-presented as fact. Is this tendency a major problem in history? Is it a part of the political polarization that we have seen early in this century? And, what is the remedy for such manifestly poor scholarship?

PJ: That’s a very difficult challenge. It really takes strenuous research to be certain that something that seems to be true by virtue of it being so often repeated, is actually factually and empirically true.

DS: Are there any major areas of history- American, world, general or specific- that you think have been wrongheaded, since the earliest times they were propounded? What are they and why?

PJ: Well the Dunning School of Reconstruction immediately comes to mind. I am referring to a broad array of early twentieth century scholarship that fallaciously portrayed the Klan and white supremacy as a heroic response to black savagery and white Northern betrayal during the post-Civil War period of Reconstruction (1865-1877).

DS: Do you belong to any political party, and what are your views on such current politicized matters as euthanasia, abortion, gay marriage, and stem cell research? Do you see such political and/or legal things in the larger historical context? Do you view, in fact, most matters through a historical lens, or are there times when you drop the role of historian for that of man, citizen, bystander?

PJ: I am an active citizen who votes on a variety of issues more based on my core principles than any party line.

DS: Ok, let’s briefly go over your two books: The Black Power Movement: Rethinking The Civil Rights And Black Power Era and Waiting ’Til The Midnight Hour: A Narrative History Of Black Power In America. You edited the former. Whose work was in it, and what was the premise? Many people look back on Black Power as a relict movement, sort of the black equivalent of the Ku Klux Klan- a bunch of hateful black people who ridiculed mainstream black leaders of the day. How does the book reconcile that stereotype? What prompted its writing? And how long did it take to write?

PJ: The Black Power Movement features contributions from some leading historians in the field.  The anthology was the first to offer a historically contextualized approach to the study of the civil rights and Black Power periods. It does more than reconcile the stereotype of Black Power as the civil rights movement’s evil twin, it explodes it by offering empirical evidence to the contrary even as it critically examines the weaknesses, strengths, and shortcomings of the period.

DS: The latter work was penned by you. Some history books are a rather dry recitation of facts. Others, like the work of Daniel J. Boorstin, take the novelistic history approach, wherein real persons, such as Christopher Columbus, are written of as if unknown quantities, characters in a novel that we, the readers, are exploring Terra Incognita with. What was the approach you took? What prompted its writing? And how long did it take to write? And, what is the overall Joseph style of writing vis-à-vis Boorstin or other well known historians?

PJ: Waiting Til the Midnight Hour took five years to write. Its narrative style is inspired by the work of a number of historians, writers, and scholars: Manning Marable; Nell Irvin Painter; Robin Kelley; David Levering Lewis; Taylor Branch; Clay Carson; Sonia Sanchez; David Garrow and many others.  The writing style was based on an effort to do justice to the “bigness” of the story. Black Power really is a world-historical epoch, one that has a cast of thousands, and takes places on several continents, crossing borders and boundaries. To tell this history properly, I wanted to write it in way that mirrored the energy and excitement of the era being chronicled and analyzed.

DS: Can you give the readers a one or two paragraph précis of its content, argument, and conclusions?

PJ:  Waiting Til the Midnight Hour focuses on the intellectual, political, and cultural networks that gave the Black Power breadth and depth, and in so doing transforms historical understanding of the black power movement in several ways. First, it reperiodizes the era, arguing that the movement’s origins—not simply its antecedents—can be traced back to the mid-1950s in the local activism of Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam. I argue that the movement was guided by international impulses, most notably the 1955 Afro-Asian Conference in Bandung, Indonesia. Second, Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour sees black power activism less as a disillusioned, negative response to postwar liberalism, and more as a movement that grew from a black radical tradition with deep, shared roots in the civil rights movement’s heroic period of the 1950s and early 1960s. Between the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision (1954) and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 early black power militants and civil rights activists operated alongside each other and forged pragmatic working alliances.

  Ultimately, the book argues that Black Power helped to fundamentally transform democracy in postwar America. Black power activists attempted to confront, challenge, and transform American democracy in ways that ranged from Stokely Carmichael’s nuanced antiwar rhetoric and largely ignored voting rights work in Lowndes County, Alabama, to the Black Panthers’ efforts to curb police brutality, ensure quality education, and eradicate poverty, to the “Gary Agenda” of the 1972 National Black Political Convention.

DS: What exactly was Black Power, if not what most people old enough to recall it think it was? How was it different, or similar, to Marcus Garvey’s Back To Africa nationalism, and was it a descendent of the slave revolts by Gabriel Prosser, Denmark Vesey, and Nat Turner?

PJ: Black Power was a movement for social, political, cultural, and economic self-determination.  In truth, my study examines aspects of its twentieth century iteration, but there has indeed been a longstanding movement for black power which I think includes the slave rebellions that you mentioned and both documented and undocumented acts and histories of resistance.

DS: In the book you mention Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), and while I was long an admirer of his early incendiary essay style, his poetry swiftly became nothing but bankrupt sloganeering. In the mid-1980s I went to a reading of his at the West Side YMCA, and he had become a parody of himself. His ‘reading’ consisted of being surrounded by a dozen or so young white college aged acolytes in white robes (almost all female), and a nubile female reading two of his poems. He read nothing, and played the part of the Buddha. It was like watching a scene from some cultist ritual. Then, after 9/11, there was his Anti-Semitic insanity, and the controversy that ensued after a bit of his doggerel became embroiled in a controversy over his being named New Jersey’s Poet Laureate. Similarly, one of the best poets of the mid-20th Century was Gwendolyn Brooks, until she abandoned art for political sloganeering. First, what are your thoughts on Baraka, the man and writer? And why is there such a noxious vein of Anti-Semitism in much of the political movements that seek to empower blacks? Secondly, do you think that the Black Power movement (like all politics) almost always retards the art of the so-called artist? Explain.

PJ: Amiri Baraka remains one of the protean figures of post-war black art, poetry, aesthetics, and activism.  His unabashed and outspoken political views have, historically, bred controversy but it’s important to note that in the late 1960s and early 1970s he emerged as an important local and national and global figure known as much for his activism as for his art. I don’t believe that politics, or Black Power, retards artistic growth. It depends on the individual. Certainly, some artists, including Baraka, went through specific phases that corresponded their art to a definite political mood, but social movements often produce that.  His book of essays, Home, published in 1966 remains a literary masterpiece with a decisive political edge.

  In the 1980s and 1990s there were well-publicized mutual recriminations between certain segments of the Black and Jewish communities over allegations of black anti-Semitism and Jewish anti-black racism. I won’t rehearse these arguments here but I do believe that an over-emphasis on tensions between blacks and Jews obscures a deep history of political alliances that reached a crescendo during the civil rights movement’s heroic years.

DS: One of the things that I have tried to use Cosmoetica for is the promotion of neglected works of art, mostly poetry and writing- such as the essays of scientist Loren Eiseley and the poetry of James Emanuel, whom I interviewed here. Emanuel is mostly a neglected writer in the U.S., mainly for having been abroad for thirty or so years, after a personal loss suffered at the hands of local police enforcement. His is a life of a 20th Century black American, but more so the life of a great artist that needs further rediscovery and championing at a level that I, currently, cannot provide (even with a popular website, and being responsible for about 90% of the online information about him), so that he can take his proper place amongst the canon of both black and American poetry and art. First, as a historian, do you ever think you would delve in to biography (I’ve read you are contemplating a bio on Stokely Carmichael), or are you interested in the larger trends? Second, as Emanuel’s major papers are already in the Library of Congress, would you know of any historians or biographers willing to possibly attempt a biography of this great and deserving poet?

PJ: I am unfamiliar with James Emanuel’s poetry, but not surprised to hear of such neglect. I am in the process of completing the first historical biography of Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture). His life was enormously complex and impactful and I believe that a biography of such an indelible figure necessarily reveals larger historical trends as well as the specifics of an individual life. 

DS: To digress, a moment, and on a purely philosophic level, since I mentioned Emanuel and biography, in what camp of history do you fall into- the Great Man camp, which believes history is wrought by great individuals, or the Great Trends camp, which feels that history flows and the individuals at the crux are less important? Personally, I fall in the middle, the third area, that feels there are Great Men (good or evil) but also undeniable trends. Your take, and why?

PJ: Well I would say a combination of not only significant individuals and historical trends but add the impact of the grassroots, what some have referred to as history from below. My Stokely Carmichael biography is illustrative. Carmichael was born in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, moved to the Bronx, spent time in Harlem, went to college in Washington, DC (Howard University), and spent significant stretches of time in the Mississippi Delta, Alabama’s black belt, and, later, parts of West Africa (Guinea) and the larger Third World.  At each instance there are several ways to chronicle his story, but I think the most historically accurate tries to examine not just the larger historical trends of the era (Cold War, Civil Rights, the age of Decolonization) or historical figures (JFK, LBJ, MLK, Malcolm X, Fidel Castro Ho Chi Minh), but the people he encountered who remain relatively anonymous but who impacted and helped shape his life’s trajectory.

DS: Being America, and despite the election of our first black President, there are still sharp divides racially, from cultural and economic perspectives. Prior to Obama’s election, in the early part of this century, there was an oft-asked question about where America’s Black leaders had gone. Implicit in the asking was the assumption that there were no Malcolm Xes nor Martin Luther King Jr.s any longer. Now, when alive, both men were hardly revered by most non-black people. But, folks like Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton (two religious leaders with questionable backgrounds and major scandals in their past- Jackson’s infidelities and Sharpton’s Tawana Brawley Hoax) were held up over civic and elected leaders, as well as other people in Academia, media, or business. It was lamented that Hip Hop and sports stars were all that black children could idolize, and there was the silly Ebonics fuss. And cultural commentators like Richard Thompson Ford even wrote a book blasting as hard at racebaiters, like Sharpton and Cornel West (who, to me, often makes good points, then turns around and sounds like a slimmer Sharpton admixed with a dose of Joseph Campbellian Academic charlatanry), as much as traditional racism. You wrote a review of a book by journalist Juan Williams that praised folk like Bill Cosby in standing up against excuse-making and the hip hop culture of debasement toward black females, and took a less extreme view than either Cosby or Williams. First, was all of this nonsense about a leaderless black America (pre-Obama) just the media’s need to fill the 24 hour news cycle?

PJ: I think that those who lament the dearth of leadership in the black community, usually have no deep roots in these communities.  Before Obama’s emergence as president the black community had leaders across all walks of life, from the clergy to the academy.  As late as 1995 Louis Farrakhan successfully organized the Million Man March. What many people were actually commenting on was the decline of a specific kind of movement iconography found in the images of MLK, Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, and Stokely Carmichael, and, in the 1970s, figures such as Amiri Baraka, Angela Davis, etc.

DS: What are your views of comedian Bill Cosby, and his recent ‘crusade,’ if you will, against hip hop? Is he just an out of touch old man, or a pompous one? I recall, years ago, when his show was a hit, and he appeared on the old Phil Donahue talk show, Cosby railed against the character Archie Bunker, from All In The Family, stating that that show and character were not positives on the cultural landscape, because the bigoted Bunker never apologized for his views. Yet, that was the very point of the show, and the nub of why bigotry is so vexing a problem. And Cosby simply could not wrap his mind around that fact. So, while a celebrity, he’s just a goddamned comedian, not some great thinker, so why is he given such accord? I would argue it’s because of what I termthe celebritization of expertise.’ If someone is famous for some thing, they are seen as having more insight or knowledge on other things. There is no logic for it, and every time some Hollywood celebrity shoots off their mouth they prove it; so do you agree that this celebritization of expertise is why Cosby got so much mileage out of rather dense and out of touch remarks, or was he on to something, but simply ill equipped to properly frame the nub of the problem?

PJ: Cosby has an educational doctorate, one that was earned through coursework and writing a dissertation, from University of Massachusetts-Amherts, as does his wife Camille, so I would place him in a unique category as someone who is famous and intelligent.  Cosby’s emphasis on accountability and self-determination, while laudable, were overwhelmed by a punitive tone that seemed to complexly dismiss the institutional and structural barriers that lead to black unemployment, illiteracy, disease, death, and incarceration. So in a sense he came off as an antagonistic critic of the black poor, even though from his perspective, he was offering “tough love” and a kind of motivational tongue lashing that made many whites applaud and emboldened black elites including President Obama, to ape this criticism. The tougher road, I believe, was crafted by Martin Luther King Jr. who stressed personal and societal accountability to the point of arguing that wealth redistribution was fundamental to the moral and economic fabric of American democracy, a prophecy that still reverberates to this day.

DS: Re: celebritized experts, and the earlier mentioned idea of causality. When I interviewed philosopher Daniel Dennett, he seemed almost a blank slate himself, unwilling to take on philosophic subjects beyond that he’s written of. As example, he had appeared on a tv talk show at the end of the century, as a panelist regarding the most influential folk of the last millennium. You recall how many lists were made, no doubt, and this was a classic example of the celebritization of expertise. Anyway, I thought it a great way to dovetail with my interest in mass murderers and despots throughout history, since I believe Genghis Khan was overlooked on most lists, with the issue of causality and determinism. Thus, I asked this query:

  That puts me in mind of another Charlie Rose show you did, with Steven Pinker and others, at the turn of the century, on the most influential people of last century. What I found a bit galling was some of the sheer stupidity on that panel- most notably by the President of the Carnegie Institute, Maxine Singer. She equated influence with good morality- an asinine position, yet one which no one, not even you, challenged. I similarly recalled Time magazine having a most important people of the last millennium issue, and leaving off, to my mind, easily the most influential person of the last thousand years, Genghis Khan. My reasoning is that influence comes with time, so the most influential person simply could not be in the last couple of hundred years. Then, there would have to be reach over several spheres. Then, there would be the mind experiment of removing that person and seeing if he or she was merely a part of historic forces, or one of the Great Men of History. Khan fits all of these- even if he was the worst mass killer in human history, up until the 20th Century. He was born early on- the 12th Century, and he took a nomadic Gobi people, with a six thousand year history of no territorial expansion, united the Mongol tribes with the Turkic tribes, and built a nation larger in area than the old Soviet Union- all within two decades- and sans guns or any advanced war materiel. His effect on politics, the arts, religion (his was a secular state), and life was profound. Remove him and the Mongols likely go on as nomads. Then there is no check on Chinese expansionism. Khan forced the Chinese to abandon their junk explorations across the Pacific and likely to the Americas. They hibernated xenophobically as a world power for centuries. The Khanates carved out of his empire, by his descendants, helped establish the Ottoman Empire, which acted as a bulwark against Muslim expansionism into Europe. Without the Ottomans, Islam may have displaced the Papacy, forcing its withdrawal to Scandinavia and a reduced status as a regional Arctic cult. China may have expanded across the Subcontinent, Oceania, and into the Andes and the western half of the Americas, while Europe was Islamized. Moorish Spain and Imam Britain may have then settled the Americas from the east. The Cold War of the last century may not have been between Communism and Capitalism, but between Islam and Sino aggression. Yet, none of that happened because one Mongol named Temujin preferred horseback riding and conquest to life as a scavenger. To me, this omission shows the profound lack of vision many so-called leaders and experts have in their respective fields.

  First, would you agree with my ranking of Genghis Khan as numero uno in influence last eon, for despite his genocidal ruthlessness, he was an organizational genius with a mind that wanted to know seemingly everything? He was arguably also the most amazing figure in human history. If you disagree, why? And why do you think he was so ignored on such lists? Was it simple Eurocentrism? Or something more confounding?

  Dennett flippantly replied: ‘I guess I just don’t know enough about Genghis Khan to judge,’ which implied he a) had no clue that his humor was lacking, b) the question was essentially not about the Mongol warlord, c) did not care about giving a good interview nor digging a bit deeper into his mind, or d) all of the above. So, let me first ask you if such lack of intellectual engagement is a problem unique to ‘celebrity experts’ as Dennett, systemic in academia, or simply evidence of the greater intellectual apathy of the times? After all, Dennett is a philosopher, not a creative thinker, nor a historian, so why was he even on such a panel on historical importance in the first place? Secondly, given the points I laid out in the above question, whom would you place in the top spot on such a list, and what are your views of causality and determinism?

PJ: Certainly Genghis Khan is an important historical figure and your question makes a persuasive case, but not being an expert in this field, I would demur from taking a position.  I do think that the idea of Euro-centric or western-centric approaches to thought may have played a role here.

  Well, I believe esteemed thinkers add complexity to intellectual discussion even if they are not historians. In terms of causality and determinism, I think it’s interesting to lay out counterfactuals, like yours about Khan, above.  Beyond that when we look as history, we usually find multi-causal factors leading to war, trade, conquest, social movements, etc, but this is not to say that these events are pre-determined. History reminds us that all events have various levels of contingency and the world and way we live now may have been drastically transformed by other factors.

DS: Back to Cosby: I have a number of problems with him. To start, while I grew up watching the Fat Albert cartoons as a kid (and loved them, as they were the only cartoons that showed areas like where I grew up), I found his 1980s hit tv show to be condescending, moralizing, and shallow (he ripped off dozens of episode premises from Fat Albert). Yet, he’s black, rich, and famous. The same applies to the even more shallow Oprah Winfrey. Here’s the richest most powerful non-royal woman in the world, and yet she’s a bottomless black hole of an ego- witness her mug on every edition of her O magazine, or the gratuitous 50th birthday party she televised, where she had Hollywood celebrities come and pay tribute lest she not destroy their careers. Yet, these two celebrities are what pass for intellectual or deep discourse in America (in general) and Black America (specifically). Yet, one need only read the essays of James Baldwin- a great wordsmith and acute social critic (in fact, a better social than literary critic)- to see what a real thinker can provide a culture. Why is social discourse amongst blacks, and all Americans, so damned debased and dumbed down?

PJ: We are missing the kind of national intellectual discourse that existed during the era of James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, Ralph Ellison, etc. There are a number of different reasons for this, the overwhelming rise of a certain kind of pop cultural celebrity that replaced literary and intellectual celebrity over the past thirty years, the rise of “teen culture,” the internet, demise of publishing, independent bookstores, the internet, etc. The consolidation of capital over newspaper, television, and entertainment has really constricted the kind of robust public intellectual debates, discussions, and controversies that were part of the national discourse during the immediate post-World War II decades.

DS: Do you think the moralizing of the Cosbys and Winfreys is actually counterproductive to real and meaningful discourse?

PJ: Well, I won’t comment specifically on Cosby and Winfrey in this regard. I believe that the black community is desperate for alternative voices, especially those offering deeply learned yet accessible historical, political, and intellectual insights. One of the great secrets of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Stokely Carmichael was that they offered keen, at times controversial, political worldviews that added to our national debate over issues of race, war, and democracy. They exposed generations to thoughts and ideas that they would otherwise not have heard. We’re missing that right now.

DS: Is their form of dumbing down any different than the Ebonics silliness, or when black kids state that they don’t want to learn because ‘education is a white thing’? And, in regards to all of this, is not taking offence always a conscious choice on the part of the offended? Mature people simply slough things off, no?

PJ: From what I’ve read the notion that black kids think that being smart is acting white is largely anecdotal but has become a veritable boom industry for op-ed writers and journalists.

DS: I mentioned Al Sharpton and the Tawana Brawley Hoax of the late 1980s. Do you think the ghost of the Brawley Hoax influenced what happened during the more recent Duke Rape Case Hoax? And what do you think of how that played out, with the disgrace afforded to the former DA who brought the case to notoriety?


PJ: Well I believe the two cases are separate. I think, away from these two instances, the larger lesson is that in the United States, too often black women who are in fact sexually assaulted are not treated with the same level of dignity, care, protect, and outrage against their perpetrators as their white counterparts.


DS: Re: the American Constitution, What are your views on Strict Constructionism and Constitutional Originalism? Are they not rather silly notions since the Constitution is written very vaguely, for a reason, and all law is, in one form or another, social engineering?


PJ: The Constitution is a living breathing document that, depending on the era, needs to be adjusted, added to, and expanded to defend and protect rights that the founders could not have conceived of at the time it was written.

DS: In all of your writings, have you ever examined the early to mid-Twentieth Century policy of racial re-segregation in northern industrial cities? I mean policies as the Wagner-Steagall Act, and men like Robert Moses, who actively engineered the breaking up of integrated urban neighborhoods for the express purpose of ghettoizing blacks and other minorities, which led, in turn, to the practice of real estate redlining. Even as late as 1991, when I left New York City, I had realtors tell me they would not show my home to minorities, for fear it would be torched. This system redistributed wealth from the working class to the rich, but no one ever calls itclass warfarewhen the rich prey on the poor. For all the talk you hear of, from Right Wingers, about Socialism and the phony redistribution of wealth from rich to poor, one never hears a peep about how the middle class blacks’ wealth was redistributed to the wealthy in this era. How did this happen, and how can such historical realities come to light?

PJ: The making of postwar urban and suburban America in places like New York, Chicago, and elsewhere is still being chronicled by some excellent historians and sociologists. My work touches upon aspects of this. Blockbusting, red-lining, steering, were part of the creation of urban America. Jim Crow was part of the New Deal and the FHA granted loans to whites for houses in segregated neighborhoods, while blacks were provided, except in rare cases, access to housing projects.  So in a very real sense, white supremacy was not only practiced in terms of public accommodations but sewn into the fabric of public policy with real world economic consequences for generations of blacks, including the middle-class.  The only way to publicize such historical facts and their consequences to the larger general public is to ignite a national conversation about race and democracy that would help us move forward as a nation in reaching toward democratic ideals and social justice.

DS: In the public commons, every time a corporation is granted tax relief, wealth is funneled and redistributed upward. You hear so much about wealth redistribution, but never its initial distribution nor ‘predistribution;’ such as when companies get those huge tax breaks, or when loopholes allow rich individuals to hide assets offshore, or corporations to give out bonuses to board members and executives, to reduce ‘profits,’ and make it seem like they lost money, therefore lessen their tax load. Again, why do you think this is- especially given the oft-heard, and laughable, rubric about the Mainstream Media being ‘liberal’? After all, the mega-corporations that control the networks, radio stations, and major newspaper chains are all Right Wing. Who cares if the average beat reporter leans Democratic? I use the old plantation analogy- who cares if all the slaves lean Left if Massuh is a hard Rightist? This is so obvious, with any even cursory glance at history, so why has the Right been so successful in bamboozling the poor and working class into voting against their interests? Do ‘values’ on abortion, guns, and homosexuality really trump that? Comments? 

PJ: The 1960s unleashed a social and political revolution, one that was led by blacks but included multi-racial and multi-cultural Americans of all stripes, and included women, gays, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, Asians, Native Americans, urban dwellers and rural sharecroppers who al demanded a fundamental transformation of American democracy. There was also a conservative counter-revolution, popularly conceived of as having been a top-down phenomenon engineered by Richard Nixon and intellectualized by Kevin Phillips and others but in actuality took root in conservative sunbelt-states such as Arizona (that gave us Barry Goldwater), ideologues such as Phyllis Schlafly, and an anti-tax movement that pre-dates the contemporary celebrity of Grover Norquist.  From Orange County, California to upstate New York conservatives organized at the grassroots level to combat Affirmative Action, school busing, immigration, property taxes, and social welfare.  Right-wing think tanks such at the Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute gave intellectual heft and ballast to this movement by creating a web of academic and public policy arguments that formed the emerging right-wing infrastructure of the 1970s.  By the 1980s white supremacist and anti-statist arguments that had first been articulated bluntly by Barry Goldwater and Alabama Governor George Wallace (who received more than 8 million votes in the 1968 presidential election) were elegantly re-imagined by Ronald Reagan, whose “welfare queen” rhetoric up-dated old-fashioned race baiting in a manner that drew approval from white working and middle-class voters who, truth be told, even during the height of the New Deal were resistant to the idea of black folks sharing in the largesse of the liberal state.

  Part of the reason conservatives have such as easy time demonizing blacks is based on more than just cultural racism, although that’s very important as well. The issue at stake is that blacks managed to gain access to the liberal state not only just as it was declining (witness the election of black mayors to decaying cities such as Cleveland, Newark, New Orleans, Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Gary, Indiana in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s) but their initial point of entry during the New Deal was on a lesser scale that kept them perpetually vulnerable. Let me explain. The New Deal inaugurates two-tiered liberalism where most blacks have no access to social security and Aide to Widows with Dependent Children. Even GI Bill benefits were distributed along racial lines.  So our current social welfare state protect Medicare (over Medicaid) and Social Security (while Bill Clinton ended transfer payments to the poor by overhauling welfare in a manner that put millions of more poor children at risk and has wreaked havoc on some of society;s most vulnerable citizens).

  In short, it becomes easier to demonize programs that our racial history, politics, and public policy have identified almost exclusively with benefiting undeserving minorities, especially blacks.  The assault on Affirmative Action is especially ironic since more white women have benefited from these measures than African Americans. 

DS: I’m always humored when I deal with people who say they don’t find a certain racial or ethnic group attractive or not. When I grew up there was an old saying, ‘It don’t matter the color of the skin, only what shape it’s in.’ Admittedly a sexist remark, but not racist. Yet, many people, of all ethnic groups, deny this verity. A white pal of mine once told me he just was not attracted to black women. I then asked if he found Halle Berry, Vanessa Williams, or Beyonce Knowles attractive, and if he’d pounce on them if they were warming his bed after a hard day’s work. His tongue hit the floor. After some more queries, I found out he did not like what he felt were certain ‘black’ features, which in sum, meant he did not want to fuck Aunt Jemima. Yet, here he was- a self-proclaimed Liberal, not a David Duke wannabe, and he still could not separate a stereotype from individuals. And, for the record, I don’t believe, for a second, that Duke would turn down a romp in the sack with the three aforementioned celebrities. Do you find it more difficult dealing with the closet Left Wing bigots, or the open Right Wing sorts?  

PJ: Well I think everyone has some residual stereotyping that they hold onto that based on family, generation, even geography.

DS: I have a brother who is black, and he’s married to a white woman who is quite attractive. Yet, this is often a rarity, in that there is truth to the claim, by many black women, that successful black men often trade upin spouses by dumping a black woman for a white woman, even if the white woman is more like a Roseanne Barr than a Catherine Zeta-Jones. What do you think of this phenomenon? Is it just a personal matter, or does it say something about the state of race relations in America?

PJ: I guess that depends on why people are choosing their partners. Since interracial couples (black and white especially) stand out in our society, perhaps anecdotally people tend to notice if a black man is with an attractive white women rather than the reverse situation. Certainly, almost fifty years after the March On Washington and the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts it says something about contemporary race relations that we still obsess over this.

DS: I ask this question of almost all my interviewees, but, as a historian uses different parts of the brain that artists or scientists, let me see if you find any relevance to it. I believe that artists are fundamentally different, intellectually, than non-artists, and that the truly great artists are even more greatly different from the average artists than the average artist is from the non-artist. Let me quote from an essay I did on Harold Bloom, the reactionary critic who champions the Western Canon against Multiculturalism: ‘….the human mind has 3 types of intellect. #1 is the Functionary- all of us have it- it is the basic intelligence that IQ tests purport to measure, & it operates on a fairly simple add & subtract basis. #2 is the Creationary- only about 1% of the population has it in any measurable quantity- artists, discoverers, leaders & scientists have this. It is the ability to see beyond the Functionary, & also to see more deeply- especially where pattern recognition is concerned. And aPJo to be able to lead observers with their art. Think of it as Functionary2 . #3 is the Visionary- perhaps only 1% of the Creationary have this in measurable amounts- or 1 in 10,000 people. These are the GREAT artists, etc. It is the ability to see farther than the Creationary, not only see patterns but to make good predictive & productive use of them, to help with creative leaps of illogic (Keats’ Negative Capability), & also not just lead an observer, but impose will on an observer with their art. Think of it as Creationary2 , or Functionary3 .’ In the sciences, this dynamic is applicable. When I interviewed Steven Pinker, he seemed to feel IQ was good at predicting success in life- at least socially, academically, and career-wise. But my 3 Intellects posit is something I don’t think he fully got the point of. That is that creativity is wholly ‘outside’ the axis of IQ. In other words, there could be someone with an IQ of 180, and a Functionary Mind, vs. someone with a 120 IQ, and while the 180 may be better suited for test taking, the 120 IQ, with a Creationary or Visionary Mind, will be able to understand concepts at a deeper level. IQ measures narrow problem solving, but is utterly useless in regards to creativity. To use an analogy: think of vision tests. In a real world sense, this is akin to the Functionary being able to see on the 20/20 scale, while the Creationary might be able to see on the first scale- yet only at 20/50, but also be able to see in other light- X-rays or infrared, etc. Then, with the Visionary, not only are the two sorts of sight available, but also the ability to see around corners, through steel, etc. In a scientific sense, the Functionary might be represented by your typical person working in the sciences, the Creationary by someone along the lines of a Madame Curie, or Nicolaus Copernicus, who can discover great ideas, but which are logical extensions of prior paradigms. The Visionary, however, might be able to make even greater leaps- such as Hutton reaching far beyond Bishop Ussher, Darwin’s and Wallace’s ability to transcend Lamarckism, Newton’s development of a new mathematics- calculus, etc. What are your thoughts on this, re: history? Are there historians who might be considered visionaries? Who are they? And, if you are copacetic with such a system, where on the scale would you place yourself?

PJ: Well I’ll start off by saying that I won’t place myself on any such scale. But there are historians who are visionaries. W.E.B. Du Bois’s corpus of scholarship on African and African American history offers a visionary framework for understanding race relations in American history.  Carter G. Woodson, author of the classic volume, The Mis-Education of the Negro and founder of Negro History and Literature Week in 1926, which, would become Black History Month fifty years later, is another visionary.  John Hope Franklin, author of the seminal From Slavery to Freedom, did more to mainstream black history in the postwar era than perhaps any other person living was a rare visionary who, by the end of his life, was recognized as such by President Clinton with a Freedom Medal.

DS: I’ve always been pro-Affirmative Action, and, no bullshitting around, pro-quota, because without quotas of inclusion there will be many places with quotas of exclusion- meaning the number of minorities will be zero. That’s as true today as ever, just as blacks hear cab doors click shut, and just as they are disproportionately followed through department stores by security guards. I still argue with white people I am friends with who simply do not live in the same reality. They are totally clueless that such behaviors as those I described exist, even if they are not immune to occasional hostilities directed at them from blacks or other minorities. I find their obliviousness astounding. Comments?

PJ: Well, this really relates to the answer I provided to your earlier question about the right wing and it infrastructure. Affirmative Action is a misunderstood political and public policy half-measure that’s not really directed exclusively toward blacks. The brilliant Temple University philosopher Lewis Gordon has written insightfully about this topic and reminds us that the real question about Affirmative Action is the number of mediocre whites that reside, lead, and attend prestigious institutions, corporations, and boards while we focus on the few minorities, many whom are overqualified especially at elite institutions of higher education.  Affirmative Action, and the antagonism against it despite the fact that white women have been its biggest beneficiaries, reveals the depths of breadth of white supremacy as a contemporary, rather than historic, fact of American life.

DS: On a philosophic level, do you find any criteria as wholly objective, at least historically? Or, is it all a philosophic exercise- i.e.- a single drop of objectivity objectifies a whole ocean’s worth of subjectivity, the way a single drop of blood would literally make an ocean of pure water impure? For example, there is the Hitler debate- was he an unrepentant bigot (ala Mein Kampf) or merely an opportunistic craver of power (as in Alan Bullock’s Hitler: A Study In Tyranny)? How do you determine between such claims you come across, and is that the way most historians do so?

PJ: Well in terms of objective criteria, we do have certain indisputable factual evidence regarding disasters, genocide, pogroms, riots, etc. But scholars always interpret these events based on their subjective points of view, so objectivity is a really complex ideal.

DS: Let’s turn to an area that has been a major problem in fiction and history over the last decade: plagiarism. In the last decade some historians, Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin being the biggest names, have been proven to have plagiarized major portions of books of theirs from many other historical works. The list of fiction writers is even longer, and decades ago, even, Alex Haley, was guilty of plagiarizing a novel for his supposed real life memoir, Roots. It seems that Ambrose and Goodwin plagiarized to save time, because they became less about being individuals than corporate ‘brands,’ with a desire to produce off the rack works at a high speed. Ambrose seemed to be caught dead to rights, whereas Goodwin seems to have fluffed notes because she relied on a staff of researchers rather than doing her own research and writing- akin to old Master painters whose works were sometimes painted by students under their name. First, how do you avoid plagiarism? Is it ethics, or avoiding becoming a ‘brand’ and losing your individuality, and becoming, like Goodwin (or Michael Beschloss, David McCullough, Richard Norton Smith, or Robert Caro), a corporation?

PJ: Well plagiarism can happen when scholars are not careful with their research notes, which is accidental. The idea that someone plagiarized to save time is egregious. I suppose the only way to prevent that is to maintain your professional integrity, take careful notes to distinguish between your words and that of others, attribute work that is not your own, and produce at a pace that does not place you under undue pressure or stress.

DS: On a side note, one of the reasons I wanted to interview you is that I find your views less predictable than the Grand Masters of History mentioned above. Therefore, I think they are more vibrant and relevant, as well as less ossified. Do you think ossification is a career hazard in history?

PJ: That can be a hazard, but I am finding that over time, you experience new pleasures in reading, writing, teaching, and research. By delving deeper and backed by experience, you can try to get better in your work, expand your perspectives and world view, and take on risky and ambitious projects that you would not have been able to when your younger.

DS: To what degree have you seen plagiarism amongst your peers? Do you regard it as a problem? After all, history is less a creative work than a journalistic one. If you were plagiarized, would you sue, or be flattered, as long as the proper recognition was finally granted?

PJ: I have not noted any excessive amount of plagiarism, other than the occasional expose of certain scholars we have heard about. If I were a victim of plagiarism I suppose I would want correct attribution so that the record could be set straight.

DS: In this sidebar to an article on plagiarism in Slate, writer and editor David Plotz, posits a theory on the difference between writers (especially historians) who make facts up and those who steal words:There is surprisingly little overlap between plagiarists and fabulists. The New Republic’s fabulous fabulist Stephen Glass didn’t plagiarize. Historian Joseph Ellis, who concocted a fake Vietnam War record for himself, seems to do rock-solid scholarship. Some pants-seat speculation why the two groups differ: Plagiarism and fantasy stem from opposite psychopathologies.

  Essentially, fabulists can’t find anything in the real world that equals their imagination. That’s why they make things up, because what they invent is more interesting than what they see around them.

  Plagiarists, by contrast, find too much in the real world that equals their imagination. They steal because there is too much other writing around that tempts them—what they see around them is more interesting than what they write themselves.’ Any thoughts on Plotz’s claim?

PJ: Interesting insight that speaks for itself.

DS:  There are blacks that try to parse a difference between bigotry and racism, claiming that blacks cannot be racist since racism is a system of oppression. Yet, Webster’s rents such a claim, but the claimants persist. How do you distinguish between personal and systemic racism?

PJ: Well institutional racism subordinates groups based on race and can be seen in the over-representation of blacks in all negative social economic indicators, whether its mass incarceration, welfare and food stamps, unemployment, high rates of disease and infant mortality, illiteracy, homelessness, living in public housing projects, food insecurity, proximity to environmental hazards, low income, and an astonishing paucity of wealth.

  Personal prejudice is more individualized and may impact someone in terms of social circles but does not have a systemic impact.

  That being said, of course blacks can be racist. Historically, with the exception of individuals such as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin who threw Asians (Indians) out of his country, we have not seen it practiced by blacks on the same level as South Africa or the United States.

DS: On a personal level, what term do you use when referring to your own background- black, African-American, colored, Afro-American? Why?

PJ: I prefer black because of its pan-ethnic identification, meaning that it encompassed North America, the Caribbean, Africa, and large parts of the world to include Haitians, Jamaicans, Nigerians, as well as those of African descent from Cuba, Europe, and South America.

DS: What of diversity in Academia, and the desire to expand canons of literature and art by rejecting old standards- i.e.- positing some little known writer or painter from an ethnic group is as good as a William Shakespeare or Pablo Picasso because the two named artists get favored treatment for being white males? Yet, this leads to dumbed down art, where a writer like a Jhumpa Lahiri can win a Pulitzer Prize, even though her stories are just soap operas with Indian spice names in them (the accoutrements of a culture sans any of the depth and reality). Or a Toni Morrison winning a Nobel Prize while more deserving writers- such as a black male like Charles Johnson- do not get such an award, simply because whatever body decides it is time that some token get awarded. Ideas?


PJ: Well I think that this is largely subjective and a matter of taste. I’ve enjoyed the limited amount that I have read of Jhumpa Lahiri and think that Morrison is an absolute literary genius. That being said, the Western canon is still shaped in large measure by a very European centered intellectual and literary aesthetic. So when writers of color, beyond a few that have been sanctioned by the literary establishment, gain notoriety it makes many feel uncomfortable.

  Beyond the big iconic authors you mention, there are of course certain writers of color who may receive recognition despite their mediocre work, but even this is a kind of ironic progress since they join the innumerable number of white writers who have experience the same phenomenon for generations.


DS: What of the recent trend, in books and film, to create counter-myths, such as the Mystical Negro (see The Secret Lives Of Bees or any role acted by Morgan Freeman where he guides the dumb whitey to higher spiritualism)? Is this not just a latter day version of Rousseau’s Noble Savage?


PJ: I’m not familiar with that particular film, but I understand your point. Films like The Legend of Bagger Vance incorporate certain tropes that, while inclusive on the surface, do boil down blackness to a kind of spiritual essence that can save the soul of the more intellectual white character.  Culturally, Hollywood still is mired in stereotyping (largely as criminals but sometimes as the Noble Savage) black life in ways that ignore its rich complexity.


DS: What are your thoughts on ethnic holidays, or Black History Month, etc.? Does not this blur an individual’s real accomplishments, especially if those accomplishments have little to do with the group the individual belongs to? I ask because, some years ago, I worked as a civil servant, and during Black History Month, the county I worked for had some celebrations planned. One of its featured speakers was a black man with a radio show, and this guy held Anti-Semitic views akin to those of Louis Farrakhan, as well as his having lost his radio show for abusing drugs. I thought he was a terrible role model to hold up for any children, especially black kids, yet this PC mindset tainted the process. Had the man been white, as example, they never would have invited him to speak with his documented background in bigotry. The point is, while he has a right to air his noxious views, I’m against a political organization aiding him. What are your thoughts on these things, which occur many times over, both personally and legally?


PJ: I think that black holidays are important and serve as a cultural reminder of the specific history of race in America and the legacy of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the Middle Passage, and colonialism and racism.  I would argue that most of these occasion are qualitatively different from what you may have anecdotally witnessed and are filled with community organizers, activists, elders, and young people offering up positive encouragement, sparking interest in black history and culture, and trying to celebrate the struggle for black freedom in America and around the world.

DS: On the other end of the spectrum there are minorities who wallow in the worst aspects of their culture, and if criticized for it, displayed in their art, they whine that the criticism is bigoted. As example, I’ve ripped bad black poets like Maya Angelou and Wanda Coleman, and been called racist, even though my criticisms had nothing to do with race, and I often pointed out example of the criticized using their own racial stereotyping. Yet, I’ve also championed good and great black poets like Robert Hayden, Thylias Moss, and James Emanuel. What do you think drives such- merely small egos and insecurities, and is there really anything to remedy such ills? And when will such Boy Who Cried Wolf nonsense end?

PJ: We must remember that much of the criticism of certain black art has been racially motivated historically, which makes it a more delicate exercise to excoriate certain art and artists. I have not read your reviews of these poets so can not pass judgment, but black poetry, literature, fiction, etc still finds it difficult to receive a fair hearing among mainstream critics.

DS: Any broader ideas on Political Correctness and Multiculturalism?

PJ: Both are coming out of the culture wars and social movement struggles of the 1960s. The former is really an invention of the right, now bandied about by the left as well, for their inability after the heroic period of the civil rights struggles and the Black Power era to practice overt racism and sexism in the Southern Dixiecratic manner of a George Wallace.  The latter has been championed by liberals and is in theory very important, but is usually watered down in a manner that reproduces the fiction that America in a melting pot, when historically different racial and ethnic groups have actually been thrust in a violent zero sum game over resources, with blacks competing with two hands tied behind their backs due to slavery and over one hundred years of Jim Crow.

DS: What are your opinions on such things as invented traditions in the black community- such as Kwanzaa? I mentioned Alex Haley, and when Roots (the book and the television miniseries) were big, in the late 1970s, I recall many black families took on Black Identity traits, such as proclaiming the ‘We’re all descended from kings’ nonsense, and the trend of naming children with faux African names or exotic spellings of old names (there aren’t many LaToyas running about the veldts and jungles of Africa). Do you think these things have been deleterious, especially the notion of privilege in the royal descent claim? After all, most of the folks that made the Middle Passage were just the African equivalents of bootblacks or goatherds, no?

PJ: Invented traditions transcend race and ethnicity and are part of the process of America’s immigrant roots.  African centered cultural traditions such as Kwanzaa are healthy as long as young people are being told a complex and historically accurate vision of the past, which means that while some may be descended from royalty, many come from less esteemed but no less important stock.

DS: When I interviewed Charles Johnson, I asked him this query: ‘The Du Bois quote and mention also put me thinking about modern rap music, and its effect on kids (of all races), as well as the sort of empowerment some try to use art for. It reminds me of blacks who try to bolster a young child’s ego by telling him/her that they ‘were descended from kings,’ as a counter to the debilitating effects of slavery and persistent racism today. This goes back to the ‘all art is political’ canard, but where do you stand, politically- as man/artist, on the role of the past on individuals? And is my asking such a thing falling into the trap you later mention in the book- assuming your expertise on race relations for your blackness? After all, as a white man, I’ve heard things white folks say behind the backs of blacks that you can only speculate on, so while you (as a black man) may be expert on the effects of bigotry, I surely am far more expert on its causes and extent; at least the American black-white form of bigotry. Neither of us is likely qualified to speak on native bigotry in Madagascar, for instance.Johnson disagreed, and replied, ‘Actually, I must disagree with your statement that what you’ve heard in only non-black company is equivalent to my knowledge of race. Yes, I have 59 years of personal racial experiences, as you no doubt have years of the same. But as a scholar, I’ve devoted myself since I was an undergraduate discussion group leader for the first big lecture course on Black American History at Southern Illinois University in 1969 (when Black Studies courses began there) to the systematic study of black American history, culture, and thought since the year 1619 when the first 20 Africans became indentured servants (and later bought their freedom) at the Jamestown colony. (Interestingly enough, one of them took the name “Johnson”.) As you said, I can’t speak about bigotry in Madagascar, because unlike my research in black American history, I’ve not studied that for a lifetime, as I’ve done with the history of my own people.’ However, I think he missed my point, that blacks often assume they know whites and their motives better than whites do. To me, this is as silly as the reverse, when white sociologists tried to construe all sorts of claims into black behavior. So, would you agree with my posit that, ‘as a white man, I’ve heard things white folks say behind the backs of blacks that you can only speculate on, so while you (as a black man) may be expert on the effects of bigotry, I surely am far more expert on its causes and extent; at least the American black-white form of bigotry.’?

PJ: I agree with Johnson here. W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk and the works of Langston Hughes and James Baldwin are crucial here. Historically, since they were subordinated first under slavery and then during the long century of Jim Crow, blacks have been experts on the white mind, attitude, and psychology.  The work of Lawrence Levine, Ira Berlin, John Blassingame, Sterling Stuckey, and others on slavery is very important here as well.  Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s notion of “wearing a mask” and Du Bois’ notion of the “veil” were more than just brilliant literary conceits, they were survival tools. Blacks became experts in dissembling (even when plotting slave revolts), practicing proper racial etiquette around whites, and employing tactics that let them know the white mood in a manner that is profoundly intimate.

DS: Also in the Johnson interview, I mentioned the tendency of whites to assume any black person having expertise on race (similar to ‘all brothers bein’ down w’each other’), and he wrote of this as sort of a black self-segregation of intellectual pursuit in his essay, The Role Of The Black Intellectual In The Twenty-First Century. Do you still encounter this sort of attitude, to this day- on campus or off?

PJ: Since I’m a history professor, many people assume that I do study race, even before finding out my area of expertise.  So in that way, I think aspects of this attitude linger.

DS: I mentioned Robert Moses and the federal government intervention of the mid-Twentieth Century, wherein ghettos were created by destroying vital neighborhoods- i.e.- the lack of good jobs, supermarkets, and outrageously high gas prices. Yet, if one just looks at the World Bank example of fighting poverty abroad, their greatest success come not from trying to legislate civil behaviors, but by giving money directly to the poor to start business, and empower the poor that way, by cutting out the middlemen. Yet, in this country, that has rarely been tried, instead trying welfare alone, which led to a cycle of dependence. My belief is that, contra to their claims, many whites wanted this, so that blacks could not economically compete via businesses.  Do you agree with this, and do you favor such ‘bottom up’ seeding of economies as has been successful with the World Bank?

PJ: My favorite approach would be guaranteed jobs for those willing to work, which I feel would be an extraordinary large number of the unemployed. A positive work life impacts family life, which is the best predictor for education success and neighborhood revitalization. On this score the federal government needs to reignite the WPA started under Roosevelt, to rebuild infrastructure, spark new energy initiatives, and aid our population of children and elderly.

DS: What of a WPA-like approach to solving racialized poverty? My dad, born in 1916, served in the CC Camps in the Great Depression, and told me that many of the camps that he served in, out West- in Washington state and Idaho, were integrated. There seem to be so many positives from such approaches, so why are not these things tried out? One could calibrate a system, especially for young folk, and have them serve summers for their country- from 12-19, and give college scholarships based upon school grades and number of summers in national service- 1 to 8. Ideas?

PJ: Ha! Just spoke of the WPA without seeing this question. I am all for it, the idea about young people seems especially promising.

DS: Do you view religious morality (that imposed from without) as different from secular ethics (that immanent), which is based on deeper, common human values? And where do legal ethics fit on this spectrum? After all, some moralities justify the killing of infidels, but no ethics do.

PJ: I think that there are convergences, but certainly everyone should be guided by an ethical and moral compass.

DS: A year or so ago I had to take a copier to a repair place, and when I picked it up, the repairman, who was black and 60ish, seemed, at first, surprised when I extended my hand in thanks for his fixing the machine, and then happy. I could tell that it was more than a customer not being rude, and that there was some deeper sense of his self that simply did not expect such literal person to person niceties from a white man. Do you still find such attitudes of deference or resignation to white bigotry from older black folk you know?

PJ: Yes. Those raised in the Jim Crow era, both North and South, do not expect courtesies from whites because they rarely experienced them. This is why so many were absolutely shocked by Obama’s election.

DS: A few years back I co-hosted an Internet radio show called Omniversica. On one show we spoke with a poet named Fred Glaysher, who- in arguing with my co-host Art Durkee, claimed that, in art, change does not come until some giant- or great artist, comes along, and buries the rest of the wannabes. It’s akin to Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure Of Scientific Revolutions. Is the same true in history?

PJ: No. I believe that it depends on one where looks. Certainly there are big, defining books, whether on the American Revolution, Civil War, Slavery, Civil Rights, etc. But the changes in history usually occur through a series of case studies and monographs that are taking specific fields in new directions. Then, we may get a very well known scholar and good writer who synthesizes these works for a popular and scholarly audience that makes people take note.

DS: I started these interviews because so many interviews, online and in print, are atrocious. They are merely vehicles designed to pimp a book or other product- film, CD, etc. One of the things I’ve tried to do with these interviews is avoid the canned sort of responses that most interviews- print or videotaped, indulge in, yet most people find comfort in hearing the expected. Why are the readers and the interviews so banal? Where have all the great interviewers like a Phil Donahue, Dick Cavett, David Susskind, or Bill Buckley gone? Only Charlie Rose, on PBS, is left.

PJ: We have lost the art of long form interview pioneered by the folks you mentioned above but a list that includes David Frost, Bill Noble of the WABC black current affairs program “Like It Is,” Tony Brown, of Tony Brown’s Journal, and many more.  As I discussed earlier, this kind of interview requires a different type of intellectual culture, one that is declining in our current society. The long book review, the idea that intellectuals had something to share with a mass public used to be taken for granted (remember Marshall McLuhan’s hilarious appearance in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall?) but is now forgotten. It’s a real shame because this used to extend toward political leaders. Malcolm X could sit down with Mike Wallace and Chicago’s Irv Kupnicet. Stokely Carmichael spoke to Dick Cavett and Mike Douglass and on Face the Nation and Meet the Press. Huey P. Newton conducted an extraordinary interview with Bill Buckley and Martin Luther King spoke to everyone.  These conversations broadened the public mind and the nation’s political imagination in a way that is sorely needed now.

DS: Some years ago, my wife and I were in the resort town of Stillwater, Minnesota, and there was some Buddhist monk convention there. It was odd, in this lily-white town, to see a bunch of barefoot bald Oriental men in flaming red and pink robes, walking around. But, as my wife and a friend of hers, who was with us, went off, I sat on a bench in a store, where three monks came in. The youngest was the only one who spoke English, and in the course of our conversation, it became apparent that monkdom was merely a family business he’d given no serious thought to. When we parted I think I left him in an existential quandary; one I’ve often wondered the result of. Is this not a pitfall an insular life- be it based on religion or ethnic apartheid? Do too many people simply go with the flow, in accepting whatever roles others have cast for them? And, how does one go about countering such?

PJ: The more diverse one’s experience is, the better opportunity to live a more fully examined, even daring life. This goes for race, geography, ethnicity, and class and gender backgrounds.

DS: What do you feel about online websites that may post inaccurate scientific or historical, or even  libelous material. Most (in)famously there was the Wikipedia incident with John Siegenthaler, wherein fallacious claims were made of the man, tying him to JFK’s assassination. Wikipedia seems to be the chief purveyor of this brand of Internet sciolism. Do you think that excesses like the Siegenthaler incident presage possible libel litigations that will shut down such anonymous sites like Wikipedia? And, would this actually be a good thing, one that civilizes the Wild West atmosphere online? Have you ever found yourself or your works/views misrepresented online? If so, how did you handle things?

PJ: It is part of our contemporary culture. My own work at times has been misrepresented, but more often accurately depicted.

DS: I’ve often argued vociferously against the notion that ‘art is truth,’ but journalism, science, and history are or should be about the search for truth. Do you agree? If so, what truths have you encountered in history that debunked some well held fallacies you had? What was it like to have to let go of your presuppositions?

PJ: Historically, in contrast to my feelings as a child, I was surprised at how consisted resistance to racial oppression in the United States has been. In college history classes I would ask professors about slavery in the age of freedom and what were the Founding Fathers thinking? They would reply that not everyone thought slavery was bad, which turned out to not be true. Blacks, at times with white allies, have been fighting white supremacy since the nation’s birthplace.

  Letting go of my presuppositions here have been very beneficial in the sense that as a historian I am more aware that resistance is not always well documented in the historical record. The civil rights movement is more than just Martin Luther King just like Black Power transcends Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael. Ordinary people make history alongside history’s iconic Great Women and Men.

DS: There is an idea called Hanlon’s Razor, which states, ‘Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.’ There is also Occam’s Razor, which states that ‘The simplest explanation, which best fits the known facts, is usually the correct one.’ Are these the sorts of apothegms that you keep in mind when evaluating history? After all, despite hoping for objectivity in history, the fact is that you are a human being, laced with flaws and biases of your own. If not these, what are some guiding principles when you evaluate history and draw conclusions? Have you ever had to change principles? If not, can you foresee a time when personal or intellectual growth might cause you to re-evaluate prior claims and/or conclusions you’ve made? Has that already occurred? If so, what was it, and what prompted the re-evaluation?

PJ: As a historian you must follow the evidence. The tricky part is amassing as much as possible from multiple sources and perspectives. If you do this I think you have a better chance of distinguishing between accidents of history and events motivated by larger social, political, economic, and cultural forces.

DS: In the 2008 Presidential election you seemed to always be on television for PBS’s coverage. How did you land that gig, and is ‘professional talking head’ headed for you c.v? Also, media mogul Tavis Smiley has claimed that he has been the token black on talking head panels before- were you the token for PBS? If so, did it matter, as long as it helped your career?

PJ: PBS called me and asked if I would like to appear and the rest is history.  I enjoy the opportunity to reach a wider audience that television provides, especially since I think the point of view that I bring is often missing from these discussions. I did not feel like a token at PBS, but realize that the rise of Barack Obama during the 2008 campaign inspired many media outlets to re-evaluate their on-camera news teams, political experts, and pundits, a process that created space for people like me.

DS: Let me close this interview with a few final questions. Has race (i.e.- your being black) been a help or hindrance in your career, or in the publication of this book? Or a wash? What does that say, pro or con? Or did being a professor balance out whatever negatives the color of your skin bore?

PJ: I think that the academy is a tough gig in general, and especially difficult if your black and not from the Ivy League or a prestigious university. Add to that my interest in Black Power and it has not been an easy rode despite some of the success that I have been fortunate enough to experience.  My first book did not initially attract much interest from publishers, both due to the topic and my being a first time author.  The extraordinary poet and human rights activist, Sonia Sanchez, has been a mentor to me since my graduate school days at Temple University helped me keep the faith and secure a book contract.  My Haitian mother, Germaine Joseph, is the most strong-willed, disciplined, and compassionate person I know. That fortitude helped me stay the course throughout my academic career.  I have also been fortunate enough to have numerous mentors, including the late Columbia University historian and Malcolm X biographer Manning Marable, who encouraged my progress along the way.

DS: How will you avoid ghettoizing yourself as Black Historian? Will you branch out and write books on China, Inuits, or Argentina? Or do you currently consider yourself just a historian, period?

PJ: I consider myself a historian and am proud to also be considered a black historian. My interests in race and democracy, black radicalism, intellectual history, popular culture, the American presidency, and other topics are both rooted in race and connected to wider social, political, historical, and cultural forces that I think are of interest to broad audiences.

DS: At this point in your life, have you accomplished the things you wanted to do? If not, what failures gnaw at you the most? Which of those failures do you think you can accomplish yet?

PJ: Interesting question. I would not call it a failure, but I still want to help complicate popular conceptions of Black Power and figures such as Stokely Carmichael to the general public. My work has contributed to this conversation and I would like an opportunity to impact the way in which Black Power is taught and memorialized in broader and deeper ways.

DS: By the time this interview runs, President Obama will be well in to his first term. What things about the man, his policies, and place in history, can you divine already- pro or con? What things has he done that you did not foresee? What has been his best success and worst failure, so far? And do you think Obama’s election was just ‘the man meets his moment’? I.e.- do you think it augurs the permanent ascent of minorities and women onto the national political stage, as contenders for the Presidency, or was Obama just that one in a million fluke?

PJ: Almost three years into his administration, I think that Obama’s policies have not been as bold as most of his supporters would have liked. In essence his economic stimulus, bailouts, and healthcare policy (although enormous when considering the past fifty years of presidential history) failed to fundamentally re-imagine the social contract between government and citizens, the very reason he was elected so decisively. For blacks his presidency has been especially confounding. He enjoys high approval rating despite the enormous levels of unemployment, incarceration, and overall misery that pervade broad swaths of the black community. This is due both to pride in his election but also a response to the vicious, at times racially charged, anti-Obama criticism from the right win, Tea Party, and a wide range of conservatives.  Obama’s inability to articulate a new vision for America and the government’s role in that vision has been a fundamental mistake, allowing his critics to recklessly write a counter-narrative that culminated in the debt ceiling debacle that has tied fiscal policy for the next two years.

  Whether or not Obama will be a fluke depends on what vision of America succeeds over the next few years, that articulated by progressives who supported the president in 2008 with hope for more economic, social, and racial justice or a Tea Party driven Republican Party that has ignored the very idea of bi-partisanship in favor of ugly rhetoric, brinkmanship, and economic disaster.

DS: What is in store, in the next year or two, in terms of books and your work? Are you still working on a biography of Black Power advocate Stokely Carmichael?

PJ: Yes. Stokely Carmichael: A Biography is making progress and will be published by Basic Books hopefully in the next two years.

DS: Thanks for doing this interview, Peniel Joseph, and let me allow you a closing statement, on whatever you like.

PJ:  This is the most intense long form interview that I have ever done.  Kudos to you for taking the time to do this and while we may disagree on certain topics and historical interpretations, its important to have this kind of sustained dialogue among intellectuals, scholars, writers, and artists.

  Ultimately, I hope that my work on Black Power, Stokely Carmichael, civil rights, and race and democracy contributes to a larger national dialogue on race relation and racial justice in America that is long overdue, in spite of the election of the nation’s first black president.


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